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Fire Kills 5 Children in Carson

Three girls and a boy are found dead. One youth dies at the hospital. Adults are pushed back by smoke and flames.

September 05, 2005|Amanda Covarrubias and Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writers

Five children were killed Sunday morning when their townhouse in Carson erupted in flames and they were trapped inside.

Three girls and a boy, ages 6 to 8, were found dead upstairs inside the two-story unit, and a 9-year-old girl later died at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, Los Angeles County fire officials said.

The four adults who were home, including the victims' elderly grandparents, tried to rescue the children but were pushed back by smoke and flames, officials said. The home was fully engulfed by the time firefighters arrived shortly after 8:22 a.m., said Inspector Ron Haralson of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Two neighbors climbed to the roof and tried to pry security bars off the windows and broke the glass, but they were unable to reach inside because the fire was so hot, witnesses said.

Investigators said it was unclear whether the bars, which had safety latches, played a role in the children's deaths. Arson and homicide investigators from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department were trying to determine the cause of the fire but did not believe foul play was involved.

The deaths brought tragedy to a close-knit Samoan family of 15 -- 10 children and five adults -- who shared the five-bedroom townhouse in a working-class neighborhood known to locals as "Scottsdale."

The children's grandparents, Siloi Paita and Tuipala Pulalasi, who are in their 70s, had lived in the home for 21 years and raised their family there, according to relatives and neighbors. More recently, they had taken on the job of helping to raise their grandchildren.

The grandparents and the other adults who were home during the fire -- including the mother of three of the dead children -- were getting ready for church when a 4-year-old boy came running downstairs yelling "Fire!" said a female relative who refused to give her name.

That's when the adults made their vain attempt to run upstairs, the woman said.

Firefighters said the fire was so intense that neighbors and family members probably had no hope of pulling the children out.

"When the firefighters got on scene, it was an extremely hot fire," said Inspector Andrew Olvera, a spokesman for the county fire department. "It was not possible for anyone to get up there unless they were a firefighter with a fire hose."

Found dead inside were three of Eva Semaia's children; Taeaoalii Koloi, 6, Pene Koloi, 6, and Taamilo Semaia, 8.

Also dead at the scene was Taliama Faauli, 6, a great-granddaughter of Paita and Pulalasi. Taliama's older sister Evelina Faauli, 9, was pulled from the townhouse alive but died at the hospital.

On Sunday afternoon, their mother, Debbie Faauli, 28, arrived at the destroyed home on Paradise Valley Street and began screaming and sobbing.

"I just want to know how the fire started," Faauli said.

Faauli, who lives in Wilmington, said she thought her daughters were probably sleeping when the blaze started; Taliama was known for sleeping in. She described her girls, who were extremely close, as "playful and happy." They liked to play with makeup and paint each other's nails. Evelina was the more outgoing of the two and liked to listen to rap music, she said, while Taliama was more reserved and could be relied upon to let adults know when someone was misbehaving.

Faauli said her grandparents had taken custody of her children while she tried to get back on her feet. The large household also included Semaia's husband, Niko Koloi, who was at work when the fire broke out, and Faauli's brother.

"It's sad," said Tala Tanuvasa, president of the primary school group at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Carson, where the family worshiped. "I've known the kids since they were young. They were active kids who didn't want to sit around. They loved to play."

She said church leaders met Sunday morning to discuss how they would break the news to the victims' Sunday school classmates. The church bishop and another representative arrived at the complex Sunday morning to comfort the family and prayed with them outside the charred remains of their home.

At least a dozen family members stood huddled on the lawn, heads bent, during the 10-minute prayer.

The children attended a nearby public school, Catskills Elementary, relatives said.

Ben Pulalasi, 22, the children's uncle, who grew up in the house, also arrived Sunday afternoon looking for answers. At first, he cursed and yelled at no one in particular to vent his anger, but he later shared his thoughts about his nephews and nieces.

"Everyone knows everyone here," Pulalasi said. "This knocked the whole neighborhood over."

He and others recalled the children's distinct personalities. Six-year-old Pene was the most reserved of the children, relatives said. He liked to play video games and make-believe with action figures like the Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man. He would play marbles on a patch of dirt outside the house.

"He would keep a marble under his pillow," Pulalasi said.

Taeaoalii, who liked to watch music videos and dance, and her sister, Taamilo, were "stuck together like white on rice," he said.

Pulalasi said he would spoil Taliama, taking her out to eat whenever she wanted, even if it was at 3 a.m. to get a hamburger. He would also indulge her by making her a Samoan dish, called sua masi, made of boiled water, coconut milk, crackers and sugar.

Tony Haback, 24, who lives in the townhouse development, said the more than 40-year-old complex has had problems before.

"There's always a fire once a year," Haback said. "The water heaters are old, and the bars are hard to open."

On Saturday, Haback and Rob Dale, 20, said they had watched the children playing in the park across the street.

"They asked for a dollar -- to go to the candy house or buy ice cream from the ice cream man," said Dale, who gave them the money.

"We all watch everybody's kids," Haback said.

"So many adults are hurt from this," added Lisa Johnson, 33. "They all play with our kids."

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